Excerpt from Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Breath and Bones

A Novel

By Susann Cokal

Breath and Bones
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  • Hardcover: May 2005,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: May 2006,
    400 pages.

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Albert released Famke and backed away, to look thoughtfully from her to the sketchpad. He was not particularly bothered by coughs, having come of age in one of England’s coal towns where everybody hacked and suffered night sweats. He watched Famke with those green eyes, too big for their sockets but somehow always squinting, as she doubled over and coughed and coughed, till her face turned a bright beety red—she could feel it—and she developed an urgent need to visit the loo.

As she shuddered, Albert did nothing; but she expected no more. Only this watching, which was his work in life, just as posing for and waiting upon him and being watched had become hers. When she felt the coughing was done, she tried to smile apologetically with her swollen lips. At that, he reached into his sleeve and drew out a handkerchief.

When Famke took it and looked down, she saw another triangle marking her chemise—glistening, just beginning to soak into the delicate batiste, a fan of red droplets radiating out from the vee of her legs. It stretched nearly to the hem and her bare feet. If she could have turned any redder, her embarrassment and shame would have done it:The cough had brought a mist of blood from her lungs, and it had ruined her nymph’s costume. She should get the chemise into cold water right now—but no, Albert had grabbed both her hands and was leading her back to the platform.

"That’s it," he said excitedly. "That is it! Nimue was a virgin . . . . " He pushed her hastily back in her former pose and added the pillows from their bed, arranging them at her feet. "Ice blocks," he murmured, and then: "She was a virgin, and she gave Merlin her love, and when he failed to return it, she used his own magic to cast a fearsome spell upon him. " He sounded to Famke like one of the priests who had visited the orphanage; their voices were full of poetry, but she had never been able to understand them, even in Danish.

Albert set Famke’s shoulders and chin. "And her maiden’s blood streaked the ice like flames. " He looked at her pointedly, as if she could be expected to spray blood over the pillows on command. When that failed to happen, he continued thoughtfully, "Her blood wove a snare of blood and ice . . . Of course I cannot truly show that blood or where it came from, but I can suggest, in the shadows just here, between the legs . . . "

"I have to tisse," Famke bleated, but Albert stood on tiptoes to drop a little kiss at the corner of her eye. She held the pose.

Back at the easel, he dusted off the sketchpad with his hands. He took a long squinting look at Famke, then found half a charcoal pencil on the floor and began to draw. There was silence, except for the scratching of his pencil and the faint curses of the sailors in the harbor below.

Famke liked when Albert looked at her, even though now, as he plotted her against the stub of pencil or a longer brush, she knew he wasn’t really seeing her at all: He was seeing his idea of this Nimue, a virginal nymph who lived in his mind but not in his bed. It was the same way as he saw the blood on Famke’s chemise not as the sign of sickness but as a signal of beauty, something he called a symbol, unrelated to the coughs that plagued her.

Someone was coughing in the stairwell right now. A sailor, Famke guessed from the loud sound of it. She thought that the sailors who lived in Fru Strand’s rooming-house liked to look at her, too; but they looked differently. They saw the same things Albert saw, the same figure and eyes and hair, but even at her age she knew it didn’t mean to them what it did to him. They were only boys, at the very beginning of their years at sea, renting a room for a week or two between voyages in much the same way as they rented girls for a night.

Excerpted from Breath and Bones© Susann Cokal. Published by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved

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